Imagine not being able to make dinner plans with your friends or not eating your favorite foods for fear that it will send you running for the bathroom. For people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), these scenarios may sound all too familiar. Because the disorder is commonly characterized by cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, some IBS patients report that they can never be far from a bathroom.

Who Gets IBS and Why?
Symptoms of IBS affect up to 20 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Approximately 60 to 65 percent of IBS sufferers are female, and the condition can affect people of all ages, even children.

Researchers have yet to discover any specific cause for IBS. One theory is that people who suffer from IBS have particularly sensitive colons that are highly reactive to certain foods and stress. The immune system, which fights infection, may also be involved. What doctors and researchers do know is that IBS is not a disease; it's a functional disorder in which the bowel does not work correctly.

IBS Symptoms
Many people are able to control their symptoms with diet, stress management, and prescribed medications. But for some, IBS can be disabling, keeping them from their jobs and social events. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, symptoms of IBS may include:

    * Bloating and gas;
    * Abdominal cramping and pain;
    * Mucus in the stool;
    * Constipation;
    * Diarrhea, especially after eating, or first thing in the morning;
    * Urge to have a bowel movement immediately after having one.

Certain factors may cause symptoms to worsen, such as excessive stress or an improper diet. In women, the symptoms of IBS may be more frequent during their menstrual periods. Some people find that their symptoms subside for a few months and then return, while others report a constant worsening of symptoms over time.

Diagnosing IBS
If you think you may have IBS, seeing your doctor is the first step toward treatment. Although there is no specific test for IBS, your doctor will carefully study your medical history and perform diagnostic tests to rule out other problems. These tests may include blood and stool sample tests, X-rays, and a colonoscopy, which allows your doctor to see the inside of your colon. Even if your test results are negative, your doctor may still diagnose you with IBS based on the severity and frequency of your symptoms.

Treating IBS
There is no known cure for IBS, but many options are available to treat the symptoms. Unfortunately, many people suffer from IBS for a long time before seeking help. In fact, up to 70 percent of people with IBS are not receiving medical care for their symptoms, according to the NDDIC. Getting help is very important, though. A careful combination of diet, stress management, and medication helps many IBS sufferers to keep their condition under control.

1. Diet.
Careful eating can often help to reduce IBS symptoms. Before drastically changing your diet, try keeping a journal of everything you eat, noting the foods that seem to cause distress. Then discuss these findings with your doctor, who may recommend that you consult with a registered dietitian to help you develop an appropriate meal plan.

The following may worsen IBS symptoms, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).

    * Fried or fatty foods;
    * Certain high-fiber foods;
    * Dairy products;
    * Vegetables such as beans, cabbage, legumes, cauliflower, and broccoli;
    * Coffee;
    * Caffeine;
    * Alcohol.

In some cases, dietary fiber (in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals and breads) may relieve IBS symptoms, particularly constipation. However, fiber may also increase instances of gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Doctors usually recommend a diet with an appropriate balance of fiber to produce soft, painless bowel movements.

2. Stress Management.
The colon has many nerves that connect it to the brain. These nerves control the normal contractions of the colon and can cause abdominal spasms during stressful times. As a result, people with IBS often experience cramps or "butterflies" when they are nervous or upset. Stress management is, therefore, an important part of managing your condition. People with IBS are advised to get adequate sleep; seek counseling, if needed; and engage in stress-reducing activities, such as walking or yoga.

3. Medication.
Doctors often prescribe fiber supplements or laxatives for constipation as well as medications to decrease diarrhea. An antispasmodic is commonly prescribed, which may help to control colon muscle spasms and reduce abdominal pain. With any medication and even over-the-counter laxatives and fiber supplements, it's important to follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Some IBS sufferers report a worsening in abdominal bloating and gas from increased fiber intake--and laxatives can be habit forming if they are used too frequently.